Identification and Classification of Grassland Plants

What You Need


  • Field Guide:  We suggest Peterson, R. (1986). Peterson First Guides®: Wildflowers. (Italy: Houghton Mifflin) as a good first guide for middle-school students.
  • Access to grasslands
  • Magnifying glass or hand lens
  • Transparent, small metric rulers (for downloadable rulers visit Microscopy Rulers from the American Society of Plant Biologists)
  • Paper and pencils
  • Student permission slips from parents/guardians may be necessary for this project depending on your school policies.
Identification and Classification of Grassland Plants


To observe similarities and differences of plants found in grasslands and use these to better understand how plants are identified and classified.


"It is time to accelerate taxonomy and scientific natural history, two of the most vital but neglected disciplines of biology "(S.N. Stuart, et al., Science. 328, 177(2010)).

There are millions of different types of individual organisms that inhabit the earth at any one time. (Science for All Americans, p. 60.) Biologists refer to these different types of organisms as species. Naming and describing species is one important component of the scientific discipline called taxonomy. There are almost two million different species that are currently recognized by taxonomists. Of these, approximately 300,000 are plants. In many cases, each of these plant species will have both a common and a scientific name. Taxonomy also includes classifying organisms. In classifying organisms, biologists consider details of internal and external structures to be more important than behavior or general appearance. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 104.) Biologists classify organisms into a hierarchy of groups based on similarities and differences in their structure. (Science for All Americans, p. 60.)

The purpose of this lesson is to have students observe basic plant structures and use that knowledge to be able to identify plants. This lesson provides students an opportunity to observe the similarities and differences among plant species. Students will identify grassland plants using a basic field guide and become familiar with how plants are classified into groups called families. 

After completing fifth grade, students should have a basic understanding of these learning goals from the Living Environment, Diversity of Life section of Benchmarks for Science Literacy (p. 103):

  1. A great variety of kinds of living things can be sorted into groups in many ways using various features to decide which things belong to which group, and
  2. Features used for grouping depend on the purpose of the grouping.

Students often hold misconceptions about classification systems used in biology. Middle-school students may believe that classification systems are natural, when they are in fact human-made systems that help organize the diverse organisms found on earth (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p.104.) or may have a restricted understanding of the word "plant" and not understand that trees, vegetables, and grasses are plants too. (Atlas of Science Literacy: Vol. 2, p.30.) It is important for teachers to pose questions to students to bring forth misconceptions students may have about plants, identification, and classification.

Planning Ahead

Note: As a precautionary measure and to minimize risk, you should make yourself aware of any students who may have allergies to bee stings.  Bees are found in the grasslands and pollinate flowers; the risk for a student being stung is something to consider.

Field Guide option:  If you do not have access or cannot purchase the field guide, the USDA's Plants Database has a huge plant picture gallery and US state plant lists. Consider looking at the plant list for your state and build a small gallery of local plants for your area.


This lesson scaffolds upon what students know about the living world around them and focuses on identification and classification in a grassland setting. More specifically, the grassland ecosystem utilized here is a sand prairie. However, the lesson may be modified to accommodate any grassland ecosystem or plant identification and classification in general.

Begin this lesson by engaging students in a brainstorming session about plants and plant identification. Have students tell you what they know about plants, plant identification, plant classification, grasslands, and prairies. Record student responses on the board and consider these prompts to keep the discussion lively (you can find answers to these questions on the Identification and Classification of Grassland Plants teacher sheet):

  • What do you know about plants?
  • What are the main structures of plants?
  • What features do plants have that we can typically see/cannot see?
  • How do we tell the difference between two similar plants?
  • What is a grassland/prairie? What do you know about grasslands/prairies?

Follow this brainstorming session by going to the USDA's Image Gallery and State Search. Use the pictures available here to familiarize your students with local plants on your school grounds. In addition, if you want to show your students how important plant structures are in plant identification, access the PLANTS Identification Key for your state. A checklist of plant structures are used in the keys for plant identification for a few large plant groups. Some of the terms used for each group are more technical but they provide you with an opportunity to show students how important knowing plant structure is for identifying plants. You also may want to access the Flora of North America Outreach Resources materials for this activity.


Before Visiting a Grassland
Prior to visiting a prairie, state park, school yard, or whatever "grassland" you may have available, check out the area beforehand to look for flowering plants. See a field guide to help you narrow down which plants may be in bloom at the time of your visit. If you are not familiar with the grassland plants, consider inviting a local plant expert, naturalist, or other person familiar with local species to accompany the class. Have students make their own field journals using the Field Journal student sheet. (The Field Journal teacher sheet provides an example of a field journal entry.) Students should tape the transparent metric rulers into their field journals for easy access in the field. Also, tell students what you will expect of them in the field regarding behavior, participation, and completion of their field journals. For example, visitors to a restored prairie, state park, etc. should not dig or collect plants without permission, or damage the area. Finally, be sure to find out if any of your students have allergies to bee stings or flowers.

Visit a Grassland
At the grassland, tour the area to familiarize your students with the types of plants at the site. Show students how to use their plant identification tools (field guide, field notebook, ruler for scale, hand lens, magnifying glass, etc.). Pick one plant and walk them through the identification and classification process using a field guide as an example. Working in groups, assign students with the task of identifying selected plants that are in flower. Each group should be provided with a copy of a field guide (e.g., Peterson First Guides®: Wildflowers). If possible, each group should also be provided with a digital camera for at least a portion of their time in the field; students should snap pictures of the plants they identify. If a digital camera cannot be used, students should draw the plants they see and identify in the field. For each plant identified, the students should write the common name and family name in their field journal. Have students document the visible features of the flowering plants and organize the species by family (classification).

After the Grassland Visit
To complement their field work, students should use their Identification and Classification of Grassland Plants e-sheet to go to and read Plant Identification and answer the questions on the Identification and Classification of Grassland Plants student sheet. They should view the Identification and Classification of Grassland Plants video. In the video, students will see what a prairie looks like, how to identify plants, and what classification consists of, which reinforces what they have already experienced at the grassland. The video also introduces students to the use of scientific names. Students will learn how professional scientists and college students interested in science identify plants in the field. Students should use the student sheet again to answer the questions about the video. You may choose to show the entire video or specific clips based on your own preference and schedule. 

After students have time to answer the questions, discuss the article, video, and answers to the questions. Check their field journals and follow up with any questions they may have. From the article and video, students should see that biologists identify and classify plants using different tools and that students can learn about plants by using the same methods that biologists use. See if your students can find scientific names for the plants in their field journals. Next, return to the field and practice plant identification and classifying new plants.


For a formative assessment, consider scoring the Field Journal student sheet for selected plants. For a summative assessment, score students' complete field journals. Each student or group, depending on time availability, should report to the class on one of their identified plants. Students could also create a mural of prairie plants they researched and share this information with the class.


The Prairie Builders: Reconstructing America's Lost Grasslands, one of the winners of the SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books, tells a story of a prairie destroyed and rebuilt by people in Iowa. A remarkably poignant review of this book by a middle-school student may be found at SB&F Prizes for Excellence in Science Books.

The Science NetLinks lesson, Classify That expands students' knowledge of living organisms and further develops their ability to group, or classify, living organisms according to a variety of common features.

While this lesson is about grassland identification and classification in general, it provides an opportunity to focus on different types of grassland communities. Prairies, a type of grassland plant community, consist of treeless grass covered landscapes. In addition to grasses, non-grassy herbs commonly called forbs as well as woody shrubs may be found in prairies. There are different types of prairies (e.g., tall grass, short grass, and sand prairies) with species specific to each type. Common sand prairie (see video) species for example could include Bergamot, Gray Headed Coneflower, Blackeyed Susan, Indian Grass, Prairie Rose, New Jersey Tea, Canadian Wild Rye, Big Bluestem, Poppy Mallow, Purple Prairie Clover, Missouri Goldenrod, Daisy Fleabane, Lead Plant, and Spiderwort. Over the years, as you return to your grassland/prairie, you can build a nice list of plant species which can be used by future classes. In addition, you may also list animals, fungi, and other groups of organisms, which are in the prairie or are interacting with the plants you find there. Developing species lists is a great activity for the budding ecologists in your class. Peterson Field Guides® to The North American Prairie would be a good resource to use for this activity.

For interested students, consider introducing a more advanced field guide. In this lesson plan, you have introduced your students to Peterson First Guides®:Wildflowers. A more advanced field guide that would build on what your students have already learned is the Peterson Field Guides® series books. Find a guide specific to the plants in your region.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards